Monday, 6 October 2008

The Seventeen Foot Black Mercedes

by Edwin Hesselthwite

With respect to fellow contributor Mr Macintosh, I am going to abandon my usual form and write today in his somewhat more homely style. Because today I am discussing an issue very close to his heart and his oeuvre: driving.

For the last 5 years I have spent considerable time attempting, and failing, to become a licensed road user. Being a snooty metropolitan, I've been struggling to pass this test (generally regarded as one of the world's hardest) in London, a place with the most aggressive road system in the UK. Four failures, thousands of pounds worth of lessons, six months of haranguing the Driving Standards Agency (who kept cancelling my test at the last minute) and three driving instructors later it was last Wednesday that I finally managed to obtain a little certificate that means I can now legally own, and drive, a car.

So, after several years of nippy little diesels with no engine power and L plates that might as well say "please don't let me in, I will slow you down", (in a city where not letting each other in is a point of faith) I went up to visit some friends in Birmingham for a quiet, relaxed, weekend... We've known each other a long, long, time and a bottle of red wine served to lubricate an old friendship. When they start discussing The Mercedes in hushed tones, I was somewhat intrigued. Pleasantly exhausted I slept well, and awoke the following morning to wait for a lift to the other side of the city.

I was picked up by the most ridiculous motor vehicle I have ever seen (and fellow Little Man Pritchard Buckminster has had some pretty ridiculous vehicles)... In front of the house sat a 1987 Mercedes 500 SEL limousine with a matt finish that looked suspiciously like black spray-paint. The finishing touch of this already rather daft contraption was a huge white death's head covering the front bonnet.

The story they told went like this: three close friends had planned on joining a cross-Europe rally trip, the rules of which involved getting their hands on the most ludicrous car they could find for under £250. Taking this requirement to heart they'd picked up this dilapidated monster (with a weight of just under two and a half tonnes) and had managed to get it across the entire length of a continent without it completely falling apart (although the ignition was now controlled by a screwdriver). With cracked leather and an engine that seemed to be continually misfiring, this behemoth had still managed to pass the requirements to be roadworthy, insurable and was now being used intermittently as a second car by each of them in turn, because it was fun.

So, I write this brief post to describe my first legal driving experience, my first time driving an automatic, and my first at the wheel of a monster. Making myself comfortable in the seats, and sticking on my glasses, I worried for a moment that I wasn't using P-Plates (I know they're optional, but still)... With my friend shaking his head and smiling, I put the car into first gear and pulled out onto the streets of Birmingham. It was a rare moment of elation when I realised that while L-Plates might invite people to pass the damned learner, having a huge death's head painted on the bonnet was the driving equivalent of yelling "don't fuck with me, I can crush you like a tin can" to all passing road-users. I never realised that British carriageways were so wide.

White vans, previously the bane of my driving life, seemed to give way with deference and compassion to the new guy. Buses seemed to pause, the roar of my engine and it's feeble acceleration served to give me an hour of pure satisfaction... Why have I never driven an automatic before? Was the fuel gauge really dropping before my eyes? Heading down Birmingham's arterial passages has never been so exciting. The rain slammed onto the car, the wipers screeched ineffectually to regain visibility, but the Mercedes blazed forwards... I was the Road, I was Birmingham, I was the ruler of England!

And yet, as the car slowed to a stop at each traffic light, there was a worry in the back of my brain: was that thunking sound a part of the engine finally giving up the ghost? Would I ever be able to push this contraption to a safe place? There was no way I was driving The Black Mercedes, she was driving me and I was at her mercy.

Spent and wilting as we drove back to my friends house, I attempted, and failed, to parallel park a this monster while feeling a momentary regret... I would never have my first licensed drive again.


Rabbie Macintosh said...

Congratulations, my friend.

As far as 'first drives' go, I'd have to say that yours sounds like a corker! Seventeen foot Mercedes? Brilliant. The most important thing to remember is this... It wasn't a french car.

hairykrishna said...

It is a truly excellent automobile; preferred transport of the pope for many years. His didn't have the bonnet skull though.

Anonymous said...

did you mean you cannot OWN a vehicle until you possess a drivers certificate?


Ann O'Dyne said...

My Dear Mr H,
1. congratulations on your entry to the group of people looking for a parking place, avoiding a parking fine, and bemoaning the price of fuel.

2. re your matte-black skeletal driving experience: it's called RoadMuscle - you can probably Guugle that, to great satisfaction.